Barbecue Pork Shoulder (Pulled Pork)

Pork shoulder is a cut of meat that is laced with flavorful fat. That’s the story of the origin of Southern barbecue. An inexpensive cut of meat that the slave owners didn’t want, and as the slaves discovered, when cooked low and slow are made tender, moist, and succulent. The process, which can take 12 hours or more, is the epitome of Southern smoked BBQ. All across the southeast you’ll find places selling “BBQ sandwiches” which are pulled or chopped pork shoulder sandwiches.

The shoulder is comprised of two cuts. The bottom part is the picnic ham. The top half of the shoulder has too many names: Boston butt, pork butt, butt, shoulder butt, shoulder roast, country roast, and the shoulder blade roast. Calling it a butt is a tad ironic because it comes from the front of the hog. Regardless, it’s the cut of meat we’re talking about here.

Butts can weigh anywhere from 4 to 12 pounds, but 6 pounds are the most common. They are sometimes tied with strings to help hold them together while cooking. If the butt is cut properly, there will be only one large bone in it, and a noticeable fat cap on one side. You can figure on a 1/3 loss of shrinkage, bone and fat, so a 6 pound butt should result in about 4 pounds of pulled pork.

Pork shoulder is very forgiving and will take a wide range of heat without drying out, so it’s the perfect piece of meat to start with if you want to try slow smoking. BUTT (pun intended) it is utterly unpredictable. Sometimes it will be done in 1.5 hours per pound, and sometimes it takes 2.5 hours per pound. This is flesh, not electronics, and one hog is different than another.

And then there is the worst part of the cook: The stall. About the time the meat hits 155°F, the internal temperature will just stop rising and it may take 2-5 hours to get to 170°F. So do the math and add 2 hours. If you have a 5 pound butt, calculate 2 hours per pound and add 2 hours. If it finishes early, wrap it in foil and pop it in a warm oven or empty cooler. I ALWAYS underestimate the cooking time.

Anyway…..the cooking.

Two rubbed butts
Two butts covered in rub and ready to cook.

Bring the butt out of the fridge about an hour before you want to put it in the smoker. If your fat cap is very large, trim some of it away, but you want at least 1/8″ on top. Cover the meat in your choice of dry rub and put into the smoker at 225°F. Once an hour or so you should mop the meat. This is a process of basting it with a non-burnable liquid most often a vinegar/oil mixture. I use 2 parts apple cider vinegar, 1 part vegetable oil and 3 parts apple juice in a spray bottle. Cook until the internal temp reaches 176°F and remove from smoker, wrap in foil and put back into the smoker until it reaches 195°F. (My thermometer is invaluable)

4 butts and beans
Two on top, two in the middle and beans on the bottom.
Covered in bark and ready to pull

Let the butt rest for 30 minutes or more (if you can) and put into a tray. The fat cap should easily lift off, and unless you cheated somewhere the bone should be able to be pulled out with your fingers.

Pulling the pork can be done with your hands if you let it cool, or you can use utensils. I found a steel pasta scooper works great paired with a meat fork.

Pulled pork
Ready to eat.

Before serving you can choose to sauce it, but I prefer to let the diners do that themselves, and no sauce makes leftovers more versatile. I like a mustard sauce on mine, piled on a bun and topped with cole slaw.